The Suns Unquantifiable

It is entirely right for the Lakers, the winners of some ungodly number of titles, and their fans, viewers of an endless stream of victories by godlike figures dancing in ever pleasing pixelated shapes or projected at them at 30 frames per second, to stare down the barrels of their season's demise with all the incredulity of John Wayne facing a blade of grass.

That blinding confidence in so many cases will be proven justified.  What should the defending champs have to fear from the dysfunctional and improbable Phoenix Suns?  

All year, the drama in Hollywood has always been about the Lakers, the opposing teams merely the foil, the backdrop to the longest running soap opera in tinsel-town, the Lakers.  Given that premise, echoed by the peanut gallery surrounding the acquisition of Ron Artest, the only thing that could destroy the Lakers were the Lakers.  Internecine battles between coach and players, between the volatility of Artest and the narcissism of Bryant and the rivalry of heir and heiress in seizing control of the Lakers empire are the only forces that could tear the team's title hopes asunder.  Like the three titles won with Shaq and Kobe, Cain and Abel, only the violence from within could destroy what the NBA world outside can not.

But these internal forces have not destroyed the Lakers.  So what now, you remaining teams in the NBA? 


However, as I argue here, the greatest reason a rational Lakers fan has to fear is not just another cascade of Nash-Stoudemire PNRs which they have seen six straight years, but rather that no one anymore knows what the Suns are capable of.  That unquantifiable state of the Suns means that no one knows what will happen next week.  And as a Lakers fan, that should be scary, even if you have been so desensitized to fear by 25-30 Kobe shots of anesthesia per game.  Comfortably numb or not, your state of mind has no bearing on the outcome. 


As you can see, the title of this post is not about the Lakers.  It is about the uncharted territory of the very near future that we find ourselves soaked in.  That unfamiliarity with next week is not because of Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant or any myriad of lesser characters residing on the Pacific shore.  Our unfamiliarity with next week is because what we have seen last week that no one has seen before.

The Suns Unquantifiable

I come to this conclusion in several ways.  Let me count the ways.

I invite you to add your supporting evidence, additional ways or counterevidence in the comments below.

5.  No one saw last week coming.


As a regular, devoted viewer of the NBA, alongside a rich assortment of other insanely devout players, viewers and number-crunchers of the game, the Suns overwhelming domination of the San Antonio Spurs was jarring.  

Although the Suns had homecourt and the 3rd vs 7th seed, it was a monumental upset. 

That was not what we expected coming into this series as we thought from past experiences we could do some things to control this series as they just outplayed us.. - Tim Duncan

People, as a general rule, are very smart.  Financial prediction markets are based on the idea that raw data must be analyzed to come to a conclusion, that much evidence is soft and must be interpreted and that opinions built on all types of evidence lend to better forecasts.  People knew the Suns had homecourt, knew that some raw evidence favored the Suns, but still chose the Spurs 4-2 or better.  The Suns then winning 4-0 is disturbing evidence that, despite watching so many games, pouring over the stats, talking about the evidence, no one knew what the Suns can or would do.

On if he was surprised by the sweep -

If you would have asked me that ten days ago, I would have said yes.

- Manu Ginobili

Yeah, obviously we didn’t expect to be swept. Every game that we played we thought we were in it as they just found ways to get it done and take it away during the last few minutes of the game. - Tim Duncan

One analyst covered his ass best when he said, "I predicted all the first round and other second round series correctly, so I was bound to miss one.  This was it."  Such a statistical excuse really understates the size of such a gross error.

How bad was the error?  Only 2 or 10 ESPN analysts thought the Suns would eeek by with homecourt.  PHX in 7 is basically saying the two teams were evenly matched but homecourt would give the Suns the edge.  PHX in 7, would have been SAS in 7 had the Spurs won a few more games in the regular season.  Two more analysts thought the series would be close but that the Spurs would triumph.  An overwhelming 6 of 10 analysts thought the Spurs would win pretty damn easy.

TrueHoop's StatGeek SmackDown context did better, but only because they knew they didn't know.  For everyone, the issue came down to HomeCourt advantage. 


 "The history between these two teams makes for a fun storyline entering the series, but should the Spurs' past playoff success tell us anything about the outcome? I suspect not," says Pelton. "This series is close enough that I would probably be inclined to pick whichever team had homecourt advantage."

"Homecourt advantage is the issue," says Berri.

As I quote in my academic work, I quote for you here,

There are two kinds of forecasters, those who don't know and those who don't know they don't know. - John Kenneth Galbraith

As it was with the PHX-SAS series, so it will be with the PHX-LAL series.


4. Your instrument panel is broken, the statgeeks are flying blind.

It's been about 14 years since I've lived in Phoenix.  A lot of those years were spent overseas.  I don't have a TV.  Before becoming a formally trained econometrician, I was an engineer with a bachelors in physics.  I understand data.  I understand data collection and analysis. 

Before the advent of NBA broadband league pass and the multiple pirate streams of games, a fan without a TV or not in the broadcast area was given a small token, the boxscore.  I used to poor over those boxscores a lot.  I spent almost as much time looking at boxscores as it the games would take.  When Yahoo! came up with the gamechannel, like watching the matrix in code, I would watch each play unfold in text with 20 second updates.  It was more work to imagine each PNR, each play, drawn from the memories of games that I had actually seen, but it was just as enjoyable as the game itself.   The 7SOL teams had very distinctive boxscore characteristics.   You knew the good games from the bad ones quite easily.

I don't get much into the numbers anymore, not because I don't believe in them, but more because I just don't have the time for it anymore.   

Even so, the Suns-Spurs series flabbergasted statgeeks and the Spurs alike.  There was no success profile.  The Suns won this way, the Suns won that way, the Suns won every way.

It’s really hard not only because of the fact that we are down 3-0 it’s the way that they are beating us. We couldn’t stop them and anything we tried it was a bucket for them. It was demoralizing. We are going to have to play the perfect game. In the first game we fouled too much and they were too much in transition, it was our fault. In game two, it wasn’t running but offensive rebounds. Today, we didn’t foul and Amar’e only had 7 points and they killed us anyway. That’s the tough part to shallow. We have to play 48 minutes at a great intensity without mistakes. - Game 3, Manu Ginobili


They beat us in a game when Amar’e scored, when Nash would score, when Nash didn’t score, when they had less than 10 points in transition, when we didn’t turn the ball over. -  Game 4, Manu Ginobili


3. These Suns are not a streaky, spoiler team

When I became a Suns fan, the high bar was, as it is still today, to make some noise in the playoffs, to send a team home or two, to upset a perennial favorite, to cause a star to retire, to be a spoiler team. 

Sometimes, the notion was flaunted, that streakiness, particularly in the post-season could take the Suns all the way to a title.  While that might work in the NCAA, where single-elimination favors the indomitable and the outrageously hot and lucky, the structure of the NBA playoffs does not work like that.  In fact, of all professional sports, an upset in the NBA is the most difficult to achieve.  On great occasion, the 8th seed Nuggets or Warriors might knock off the 1st seed Sonics or Mavs, but in the next round these teams would go home without much fight.

Until Gentry took over the Suns, the Suns were rightly considered a streaky team.  The Suns had one success-option, shootingthe lights out, and when their shots would not fall, they would not win.  With Defense, Depth and Draft Picks, eschewed by D'Antoni, the Suns have partially delinked their shooting from winning.  Shooting will almost always be a streaky thing, governed by the probabilistic laws of chaos theory and statistical mechanics (air flow, random uncalled fouls, etc), but how this shooting maps into wins is no longer the sole factor to consider in the outcome of Suns games.

We did several different things and it always seemed to end with them making a shot. - Tim Duncan

Where does robust wins and consistency come from?  Having the third best offense in NBA history is certainly a factor, but in the Spurs series it was Defense and Depth.

Defense is particularly about effort and is something that can work when your shooting does not.  Depth partially resolves game rotations, injuries, matchup problems and cold shooting.

The Suns are not "hot".  They shot far less well than the Spurs. And they won. And they won lots of different ways.

They always found somebody to step up. In Game Three it was Goran and Barbosa and today it was Amar’e, Jason Richardson, Dudley’s big shot, every game they had somebody different. You have to have depth and players stepping up to win. - Manu Ginobili


2. The analysts concede they have no idea what will happen.


(from Ceek, thx dood).

If you look at the pictures, it looks like overwhelming support for the Lakers (7-3). 

LA media bias?  Maybe.  But look closer.

See all of those LAL in 7's?  There's 5 of them.  What do those mean to you?

Think about it if you were the analyst.  Say the two teams are the Marcos De Niza Padres and the Corona del Sol Aztecs.  What the fuck do you know about those two teams??  Perhaps you know, but perhaps you don't.  You do know one team has the better record and has homecourt for Game 7. Teams are more likely to win on homecourt, but sometimes in a game 7 the other team gets hot and lucky.  So, without knowing anything, its LAL in 7.

LAL in 7 is saying the Lakers have homecourt and, therefore, should squeak by.  A LAL in 7 is the most gutless prediction a coward could make, and is the clearest admission of ignorance possible.  It's also saying the Suns have a HUGE chance at an upset.  Mainly because they have no idea who this team is for the Suns and what the fuck they are capable of.

So really the predictions are not 7-3. 

LAL - 2, Abbott, Adande

PHX - 2, Hollinger, Stein

Undecided - 6

6 undecided, but with 5 saying homecourt and history should matter given they have no idea what the fuck will happen. 

The TrueHoop StatGeek SmackDown numbers are not yet out, but I can't wait to see how they process the sweeps by both the Lakers and the Suns in coming to their conclusions. 

1.  Killer Instinct

The Suns appear to have it.  For the first time in Suns history.  OMFG.

I watched that 1993 team. It had a more thrilling campaign than what we've seen thus far here.  Close games, come backs from 2-0 in a 5-game series (with the Lakers no less).  Even the old D'Antoni teams were far more exciting.  Triple overtimes, wild west shoot-outs, hail mary shots heard round the world, last minute come-back-and-win-from-10-down victories.

Call me a bad fan, I miss those games, I'm willing to put up with defeat for the chance of dramatic upset. The old Suns would let teams back into games and series.

But not these Suns.  These Suns close out quarters well.  They win they're games early. They don't play with their food.  Teams make a run to get back in the game, but are squelched just as they expend all their energy to catch up.  The games just aren't close.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Suns historians, but there has not been a Suns team with greater killer instinct. 

The Suns Unquantifiable

Therefore, for all these reasons, and not for specific matchups or statistical historical reasons, this series will be uncharted territory. Far more unknown than even the PHX-LAL games of recent memory.  Those five reasons should cause unease to the average Laker fan, although of course we know it will not.

Either team can win, the odds favor the Lakers not by a landslide but by a small and alarmingly inconsequential homecourt and ever fading history, in the absence of anything more quantifiable on which to base the outcome of the series upon.

Then what explains the rampant and overconfident proclamations of Lakers fans?  Is it idle homerism, blind faith in yesteryear or is it that if the Lakers lose, they have 15 DVDs they can pop in, hit play, relive those old successes as if this year never happened?

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